From as early as the sixth century AD, the heroic figure of King Arthur has played an important role to people throughout the ages. It was the monk Gildus who first introduced Britain to this legendary hero and even today, the legend of King Arthur is still very well known. The modern interpretations of Arthurian legend are indeed very different to the early accounts, such as that written by Gildus, Nennius and Geoffrey of Monmouth. To understand why these interpretations are different, it is necessary to study the gradual evolution of Arthurian legend; from the first mentions of him in Gildus, to medieval versions right through to the more recent interpretations such as Tennyson's "Idylls of the King" written in the nineteenth century. By closely looking at Tennyson's work in the nineteenth century, it can be seen how his writings have been based around the socio-cultural circumstances of the nineteenth century, however it is not only Tennyson who was influenced by Arthurian legend as the Pre- Raphaelites show an interest in this legend too.

It has been written that Gildus's book De Excidio Britanniae, "Concerning the Ruin of Britain," was the foundation of Arthurian legend. The way he writes about how the Saxons spread their devastation across Britain through fires and demanding supplies, it seems that Britain was in dire need of a saviour. It was this time of turmoil in Britain which would have prompted people to create the context of Arthur being a national saviour.[1] Although Gildus makes no mention of Arthur, it has been suggested by many that it was in fact Ambrosius Aurelianus who was the real Arthur. This work is different to modern interpretations because Gildus has only mentioned Aurelianus as a commander only and no royal rank is implied,[2] however the focus on Christianity has remained constant throughout the legend.

Arthur's first true appearance by name occurs in the writings of another monk by the name of Nennius. His work Historia Brittonum, "History of the Britons" is similar to Gildus's book however he has added a few details of his own. Nennius names Arthur however like Gildus, he is depicted as a great soldier and war leader and his focus on Christianity is just as important. The war between the Britons and the Saxons still plays an important role in this work although Nennius has also added mythical elements into his version such as incidents surrounding Arthur's dog Cabal and his son Anir.[3] This addition of mythical elements is what has challenged historians about whether or not Arthur was indeed a real person. There is no concrete proof to prove that Arthur either did or did not exist however Nennius's "History of the Britons" is the first written account of a soldier called Arthur.

A bit later in the ninth century, Arthur made an appearance in Wales through a document known as the Annales Cambriae, or "Annals of Wales." This book shows Arthur as a famous figure who is associated with battles and also with superhuman feats and bizarre local laws.[4] There is a quotation from these Annals, which sets another path for later Arthurian literature. In this passage, a man named 'Medraut' is mentioned who, in later versions of Arthurian legend becomes Arthur's enemy and is renamed Mordred, is introduced:

The year of the battle of Camlann, in which Arthur and Medraut
fell; and there was a plague in Britain and Ireland.[5]

In this version however, it is not stated that he was a relative or traitor or even that he and Arthur fought on different sides.[6] This is one of the first changes made to the legend however as all the people mentioned in the "Annals of Wales" seem to be real, the mentions of Arthur and Medraut suggests that they too were real.[7]

The next meaningful appearance of Arthur was in the work of a monk named Geoffrey of Monmouth who wrote "The History of the Kings of Britain," which was written during the twelfth century. Monmouth's work could by far be the most important in regarding the evolution of Arthurian legend. His "Histories" begins with the mention of an ancient Greek hero by the name of Brutus and he explains how the hero was the founder of Britain however it is Arthur who is the true hero of the "Historia Regum Britanniae" as the reference to Brutus was used to link Britain to the powerful Greece. It is the stories of King Arthur that Monmouth concentrates on as over one fifth of the entire content of the book is devoted to the record of Arthur's life, which is about twice the length of his mentions of Brutus.[8] By far the greatest and most obvious addition to Arthurian legend was the renaming and reintroduction of the prophet 'Merlin.' His 'invention' of Merlin however was based on knowledge of a prophet who went by the name of 'Lailoken' or 'Myrddin.' He then latinized the name Merlin and the famous Arthurian wizard of today was 'born.'[9] Monmouth also introduces the ideas of Arthur's birth and how Merlin transforms Uther so he can seduce the Duke's wife Ygerna and how Arthur marries Guinevere, and due to Merlin's importance in the romance of this story, he proved to be too alluring for subsequent romancers to drop.[10] Although a lot of what Monmouth writes is based on the works of his predecessors his work can never be taken unsupported as fact as it is easy to see in his writing that he exaggerates, inflates and contorts what others before him have documented.[11]

During the later stages of the twelfth century, the Arthurian legends left the shores of Britain and were taken to France by Chretien de Troyes and Wace. It is the works produced by these two, which paved the way for the Arthurian legend, as we know it today. The French were the ones who introduced the Knights of the Round Table, Sir Lancelot's affair with Guinevere, chivalry and the quest for the Holy Grail. Chretien de Troyes and Wace romanticized the entire legend and by doing this, it became totally different to the other versions written by Monmouth, Gildus and Nennius. Sir Thomas Malory then took the French version of the legend, which was called "The Vulgate and Post-Vulgate Cycles," and translated it into English. "Le Morte d'Arthur" written by Malory in the fifteenth century is by far the most influential piece of Arthurian literature as nothing written after it seems to have escaped its touch.[12] Although the writings of Malory were based on the works of the French, a lot of it was also based on Monmouth as he had given Arthur a history however Malory's account is more prose than fact and it was purely written to entertain the masses.[13] It is the entire life story of the King from his birth right through to his death however the way it has been written shows that it is purely a story to be told. His characterizations are more in depth than any descriptions of them in the past, however he does leave certain characteristics for the imagination to fill in.[14] The most important theme, which Malory has carried throughout his interpretation is chivalry. It was important for a knight to be chivalrous during these times and the majority of them were and this use of chivalry by Malory, appealed to his audience at the time.

Nineteenth century works such as Alfred Lord Tennyson's "Idylls of the King," as well as artworks and other writings by the Pre-Raphaelites have been greatly influenced by Malory's "Le Morte d'Arthur." Interest in the Arthurian legends arose independently amongst the young writers and artists who belonged to the Pre-Raphaelite movement and the majority of their works were based on Malory's "Le Morte d'Arthur" as it contained more characters for them to work with and showed a greater amount of romance which was a popular subject at the time. The Pre-Raphaelite artists chose Arthurian legend as it offered them the chance to paint symbolically and allowed truth to nature in the depiction of scene and background to be combined stylishly which was appropriate to chivalry.[15] What attracted them to Arthurian legend was that it allowed them to express human passion more outwardly than other existing myths such as those about the ancient Greeks. They did however add their own ideas to the legend to make it more suitable for their era and the most important changes were that faith in God was all important, chivalric qualities were forgotten due to the hard lives and bad living conditions people had, women in Arthurian legend were shown as being more faithful and virtuous and in Tennyson's work, Arthur himself changed and was depicted as being more honourable, faithful and loving to his wife.[16]

Of all the Pre-Raphaelites by far the most important was William Morris as he was not only just a poet, but he was an artist and craftsman too. His most famous poem is called "The Defence of Guenevere," and to accompany this poem, is his only known completed painting which shows his wife Jane Burden as Guinevere and it was painted in 1858. Jane Burden also posed for other Pre-Raphaelite artists such as Rossitti, Princep and Hughes and in all of their works she was depicted as Guinevere.[17] Most of Morris' contribution to Arthurian art though was made through his sponsorship of numerous projects. He directed the making of the Dunlop Windows and this was one of the most important Arthurian projects in modern stained glass.[18] Another one of the projects he participated in was the Merton Abbey Tapestry Works and they were based on works by Burne-Jones. The completed set is made up of a total of six tapestries on the theme of the Grail Quest.[19]

Other famous Pre-Raphaelite artists include Dante Gabriel Rossitti who painted King Arthur's Tomb, Sir Launcelot in the Queen's Chamber (1857), and Sir Galahad at the Ruined Chapel (1859) and Edward Burne-Jones, The Beguiling of Merlin (1875-77) and Arthur at Avalon (1895). The works of Alfred Lord Tennyson and his interpretations of Arthurian legend influenced the younger Pre-Raphaelites and it was Tennyson himself who was largely responsible for the sudden outbreak of Arthurian legend in the Victorian period. His great Arthurian poem by far is his "Idylls of the King" which he wrote after his other poems Sir Launcelot and Queen Guinevere and The Lady of Shalott. In "Idylls of the King" Tennyson tells the story of King Arthur from the beginning of his reign as king however he does mention the previous Kings of England who ruled before him:

For first Aurelius lived and fought and died,
And after him King Uther fought and died,
But either fail'd to make the kingdom one.
And after these King Arthur for a space.[20]

Tennyson had a love for Arthurian legend since he was a young boy, and he was always surrounding himself with the past and reading other versions of the legend.[21] This shows through as he mentions characters introduced to Arthurian legend by writers such as Gildus who first wrote about Aurelius. In his "Idylls," Tennyson has depicted a typical Victorian England with its high idealism, strict morality and warring extremisms and he draws on numerous materials such as Anglo-Saxon social customs, Bardic ideals, classical myths, Welsh myths, Victorian ethics, renaissance imagery and many Arthurian legends in order to show his vision of the Order of the Round Table.[22] He also selects and deletes certain incidents from Malory's "Le Morte d'Arthur" to concentrate on the symbolic meanings of the legend, like when he retains from Malory many of Arthur's achievements and how he omits Arthur's amorous liaisons and his slaughter of all the children born on May Day.[23] By doing this, Tennyson has diminished the interests in some characterizations and has made them fit into symbolic patterns.

While Tennyson maintains the general outlines of Malory's story, his focus is entirely different. He minimises Malory's lengthy account of the conflict with the Romans and sums it all up with half a line '.and Arthur strove with Rome.'[24] In his "Coming of Arthur," the first part of "Idylls of the King," Tennyson also radically alters Arthur's birth as he removed much of the raw passion and brutality, which is found in Malory's "Le Morte d'Arthur." Uther, in Tennyson's account wins Igraine by force and Arthur's birth is still out of wedlock. He makes numerous changes to that of Malory's version however his interpretations were all based on the influence of the Victorian era.

It was Gildus's book De Excidio Britanniae, "Concerning the Ruin of Britain," that first introduced a hero to the war torn Britain and like so many things, it was destined to change over the course of time. The major influences that caused these changes were based on each person's own interpretation and the influences the different cultural circumstances and traits each different era had and the need to modernise this legend. No matter what happens in the next few centuries, the legend of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table will live on forever and although the interpretations of him are forever changing, one thing will remain the same. That he will always remain an important heroic figure to all who hear about him and that no matter how much he changes over time, he will always be present in future artworks, stories, and poems. Never will King Arthur disappear from the lives of people regardless of the fact that he was born so long ago.

- [1] N.J. Lacy and G. Ashe, The Arthurian Handbook, London, Garland Publishing Inc, 1988, p. 15 [2] ibid., p. 16 [3] Nennius, History of the Britons (Historia Brittonum), [4] N.J. Lacy and G. Ashe, The Arthurian Handbook, London, Garland Publishing Inc, 1988, p. 22 [5] Annals of Wales (Annales Cambriae), p. 6 [6] N.J. Lacy and G. Ashe, The Arthurian Handbook, London, Garland Publishing Inc, 1988, p. 23 [7] N.J. Lacy and G. Ashe, The Arthurian Handbook, London, Garland Publishing Inc, 1988, p. 24 [8] W. L. Jones, King Arthur in History and Legend, London, Cambridge University Press, 1978, p. 68 [9] N.J. Lacy and G. Ashe, The Arthurian Handbook, London, Garland Publishing Inc, 1988, p. 58 [10] N.J. Lacy and G. Ashe, The Arthurian Handbook, London, Garland Publishing Inc, 1988, p. 59 [11] N.J. Lacy and G. Ashe, The Arthurian Handbook, London, Garland Publishing Inc, 1988, p. 52 [12] J. R. Goodman, The Legend of King Arthur in British and American Literature, Boston, Twayne Publishers, 1988, p. 46 [13] ibid., p. 51 [14] ibid., p. 59 [15] B. Taylor, The Return of King Arthur: British and American Arthurian Literature Since 1800, New Jersey, Barnes and Noble Books, 1983, pp. 129 - 130 [16] N.J. Lacy and G. Ashe, The Arthurian Handbook, London, Garland Publishing Inc, 1988, p. 246 [17] ibid., p. 252 [18] ibid. [19] ibid., p. 253 [20] Tennyson, The Poems and Plays of Tennyson, New York, Random House, 1938, pp. 434 - 435 [21] J. P. Eggers, King Arthur's Laureate: A Study of Tennyson's Idylls of the King, New York, University Press, 1971, p. 7 [22] ibid. [23] B. Taylor, The Return of King Arthur: British and American Arthurian Literature Since 1800, New Jersey, Barnes and Noble Books, 1983, p. 91 [24] Tennyson, The Poems and Plays of Tennyson, New York, Random House, 1938, p. 446